MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. — A group of terrorists is holed up in a governor’s mansion, a smart house riddled with Internet of Things devices. An U.S. military unit wants to force them out, but risking an outright shooting match might not be the best course of action.

On the ground, Army cyber forces are called in to hack into the house’s smart devices to gain intelligence on what’s going on inside and potentially use cyber effects to force the terrorists to leave.

This is one example of how soldiers from the 915th Cyber Warfare Battalion tested their skills in a fictitious scenario during a recent exercise, part of validating themselves as a ready unit.

The 915th was created by Army Cyber Command in 2019 under the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade as the result of a pilot program to build tactical, on-the-ground cyber and electromagnetic teams to augment units with cyber, electronic warfare and information operations capabilities.

The vision is to create a total of 12 expeditionary cyber and electromagnetic activities teams, or ECT, by 2026 that will help plan tactical cyber operations for commanders and conduct missions in coordination with deployed forces.

The first such unit, ECT-01, was at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana in early December as part of its readiness checks. It was the first such validation exercise that will stress the ECT’s functions over the course of five days.

The center is a sprawling facility featuring physical buildings that can be hacked into, demonstrating actual physical effects of cyber or electronic operations.

In the past, these forces from the battalion have accompanied units to combat training center rotations to augment their operations using specialized and tailored information effects. However, this type of training environment isn’t the optimal venue because those rotations are meant to test, stress and validate full brigades.

“For this exercise, we have more control,” said Capt. Gabriel Akonom, an officer with the battalion. “We have more control over the training objectives … whereas we have much less control, if any, for a CTC [combat training center] rotation.”

As the Army is building this unit, it needs a combat training center-like facility where it can test itself against critical objectives it will need to achieve on behalf of units it might support.

“We have an opportunity here where we control the scenario. and we can really test and the stress the ECT proper. When we go to a CTC, we have the added benefit of actually integrating with an infantry platoon, a scout platoon. We are not there yet with this training situation where we can actually do that,” Command Sgt. Maj. Marlene Harshman said.

Officials said they focused on three main objectives during the event, based on the mission-essential task list, or METL:

  • Conduct expeditionary deployment activities, including everything the team needs to plan, organize and deploy a team administratively and logistically.
  • Establish infrastructure operations, which the team needs to accomplish to integrate into a network of higher command to conduct their operations.
  • Provide information advantage, which is not completely defined, as the Army is developing the related doctrine.

Given the unit is relatively new and still being built, officials said these training objectives, as well as mission-essential task lists, are likely to change in the future.

“The METLs should change based off the mission. We’re talking about cyberspace being constantly evolving; we know the METL is going to change,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Klimkowski, commander of the 915th.

Looking to training

The ECT tested and stressed its technical skills during the governor’s mansion scenario. This cyber unit is unique, in that its soldiers must also be physically fit enough to move across the battlefield with others, but physical maneuvering was not part of this exercise.

This scenario, officials said, provided a target-rich environment from a digital standpoint, allowing the unit to test its skills and providing several options for a joint commander, including the choice to use non-kinetic capabilities instead of lethal ones.

“What we did is during our [field training exercise, we] provided some information, notional intelligence-type things, we allowed them to determine how they were going to actually do these operations,” said Maj. Richard Byrne, the battalion’s operations and training officer.

The exercise tests not only the physical presence of the soldiers — meaning their ability to conduct proximal or localized effects on physical targets — but also a remote aspect in a supporting role.

“It’s a complex set of skills that we need to be able to exercise in one shot, so we have a portion here and a portion [at Fort Gordon, Georgia], communicating in a way that they would realistically communicate,” Akonom said.

Prior to coming to Muscatatuck, the unit participated in a field training exercise at Fort Gordon as part of another readiness check in which it was given the same information and network it would see at the Indiana range. Given the complexity of cyberspace, officials wanted to give the unit practice and lead time prior to deploying to the training center.

“We want to give them a more realistic scenario where they have the information first, be able to conduct some analysis, do some [military decision-making processes] and deploy to the scenario with information required to actually conduct the operation,” Byrne said.

While there was no physical force directly opposing the unit on the ground, there was a virtual network as well as the emission of signals into the environment. These emissions allowed the unit to practice sensing and then interpret those signals to be able to target a force in nonlethal ways.

The unit also benefited from seeing manifestations of its digital effects in the physical world — such as actions it took against the smart house.

“I think ECT-01 really was able to go to the next level because ... we were able to see effects in the operational environment from their actions in the digital environment, and really see the cross-talk of their actions in the physical environment — from maneuvering being relayed in the digital [realm] and then having an effect in the informational [sphere],” said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Farnsworth, who is supporting the exercise from Army Cyber Command. “You got that level of realism.”

What’s next?

It’s unclear what happens next in terms of forming more units and how one would become officially validated.

“Our [initial operating capability/full operating capability] criteria, because we’re new, are still being built. Between 780th [Military Intelligence Brigade] and Army Cyber [Command], those are still not set in stone yet,” Harshman said. “What we’re working towards is the validation piece of the ECT. The validation piece is what the 780th is driving for us.”

Following its trip to Muscatatuck, ECT-01 will likely train with a partner to improve mission readiness. This will be critical because the unit was created to operate, integrate and support another.

ECT-05 will likely go to Defender Europe, a major Army exercise, and support a unit there following its trip to Muscatatuck, officials said.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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